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Continuing Fight for the Right to Grow Food: Orlando's War on Gardens

In early October 2012, a notice from the City of Orlando’s Code Enforcement stated that Jennifer and Jason Helvenston’s “front yard must be restored to its original configuration and ground Halvenston's front yard gardencovers restored.” As reported Nov. 12, Orlando has taken issue with the rows of beans, greens, and other vegetables occupying the space between the resident’s front door and sidewalk.

The Helvenston’s micro-irrigated front yard garden is in contrast to other yards in their neighborhood, where a “finished” and “inviting” appearance is mandatory. The Nov. 7 deadline for the garden removal passed with the Helvenston’s refusal to uproot their vegetables, and Jason declaring, “You’ll take my house before you take my vegetable garden.”

On Nov. 20, 2012, the City of Orlando’s Public Information Officer for the Office of the Mayor, Cassandra Lafser, told MOTHER EARTH NEWS:

The City is not requiring the property owner to tear up his garden. The City of Orlando is committed to environmental responsibility and encourages the use of vegetable gardens as a sustainable source of producing food […] The City does not have an ordinance governing vegetable gardens in the front yard. 

However, the City of Orlando has faced the issue of front yard vegetable production before, providing a precedent by which an ordinance might have been drafted. A complaint filed in 2010 after a resident used most of his front and back yards to grow 10-foot-tall corn resulted in a document drafted June 25, 2010, entitled Agricultural uses in Residential Zones LDC2010-00131. The City clearly lists their code definition of “agriculture” to be: the production, keeping or maintenance, for sale, lease or personal use, of plants and/or animals useful to humans.

At the time, code enforcement acknowledged this limiting definition, stating “in a strict interpretation, anyone who grows a tomato plant in his or her back yard would be in violation of the code,” going on to say:

Clearly this was not the intent of our code. In my [zoning official, Mark Cechman’s] opinion, the intent of the code was to prevent the nuisance effects of major farming activities from harming the reasonable use and enjoyment of adjacent, non-agricultural property owners. 

The final outcome of the June 2010 code enforcement proclaimed that the corn-growing resident could grow corn for personal use, but only in his backyard and production must not exceed 10 percent of the lot’s size. For this reason, it would seem Orlando does have a position on front yard gardening, contrasting with Lafser’s recent statement. Mayor Dyer’s office declined to comment on the 2010 code enforcement.

City of Orlando illegal garden citationThe Helvenstons, however, do have comments in response to the City. On Nov. 21 they told MOTHER EARTH NEWS by email, “We also realized after sharing with others that there is a pattern with these types of cases. The local officials do something to flip the media image so that they appear to accept gardens but then create many barriers later. Apparently, the same is happening to us. If they mean what they say then why isn’t the incident closed?”

The Helvenstons believe the City may relent to allowing front yard gardens only if fencing is constructed to block gardens from view. They feel fencing can be prohibitively expensive for many residents who hope to grow vegetables for food self-sufficiency. “FOOD should not be confused with aesthetic landscape. Our patriot garden produces real value, not perceived value,” they wrote, going on to create a Patriot Gardens blog.

Gardening homeowners in states throughout the nation have faced similar run-ins with city code enforcement. These gardeners, like the Helvenstons, are responding on behalf of the growing number of citizens across the country who – faced with soaring food prices coupled with shortages and an uncertain economic climate – are searching for ways to achieve food security.

The City of Orlando needs a code overhaul in response to changing public interest and perceptions of urban agriculture, say the Helvenstons. “The patriot garden is a key step to ensuring the City of Orlando progresses to become the ‘Greenest City in America.’ The greatest freedom you can give someone is the freedom to know they will not go hungry.”

If you would like to voice your opinion regarding this issue to Orlando's Mayor Buddy Dyer, he can be contacted at, or call 407.246.2182.

Check out our Illegal Gardening Collection Page for more news on this subject. For more information on urban gardening, check out the CityFarming Blog, and Jules Dervaes’ article, An Amazing and Prolific UrbanHomestead.

Photo by David Goodman
Documents provided by Jason Helvenston

 Kale Roberts is an Assistant Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS. His interests include renewable energy, real food and sustainable rural development. You can find him on .

steve kennedy
12/13/2012 12:31:55 AM

Really? If I were the Mayor of the city Orlando I would put a big sign in there yard saying Family of the year, Doing there part in making Orlando a better place to live and improving there peace of earth. Then I would look over at the butting neighbor and say "HOW YOU DOIN ?

bradley gaudrault
12/11/2012 7:33:36 PM

Dear Mayor Buddy Dyer, After reading about The Helvenstons it saddens me that somebody would have a problem with such an amazing lawn. The so called "ugly" front yard provides them more nutritious tasteful food than they could find in most supermarkets. They are doing their party in stopping Global Warming and Climate Change, and after Hurricane Katrina I am surprised you're city isn't doing more and at least welcoming great ideas like this. They are doing their neighbors, city and nation a favour. It is people like the people that try to stop things like this that give the United States and North America altogether a bad name. I really hope you try to do something to help this family's dispute against the city. Remember, you are hired by the people for the people to do the right thing. Sincerely, Bradley.

marina helsel
12/7/2012 1:42:00 AM

Well first of all- I am jealous over fantastic looking yard. Second- look at the beautiful smiles of the owners! Happy people, happy homes equals happy communities. In my opinion municipality should appreciate and rase the value of homes with cultivated land on the property. It takes years to build up your soil and grow deicent crop and only a bag of grass seed and couple of months to turn it all back into a perfect obsessive lawn. I feel for Jennifer and Jason. Just went through something similar with my municipality past summer, but my garden is on the side of the house and I dont enjoy grass cutting on weekly basis at 98F. Officer told me to hide my garden out of view. So I put up ornamental fence that I found on the side of the road and ripped the grass out. They didn't really specify how to cover the garden and what I can and can't do with my grass. Will grow pumpkins next summer, see what they say about it. Bees and chickens anyone?

estelle butler
12/6/2012 6:21:19 PM

So do I...your property, is your property..this is one of the many reasons, why we won't live in town..we live , just outside of it is called country..we love it..we are 2 miles from town..

jenna burns
12/5/2012 11:18:11 PM

Why does anyone even care about this? Let them grow food. In the face of economic issues we should all be doing that.

12/5/2012 7:55:09 PM

Does it really matter? It's on their property, doesn't infringe on their neighbors views in any way and it's bettering them. Is that the real issue, that people just don't want to see others doing well?

dolly collins
12/5/2012 7:51:36 PM

It doesn't look like he has a choice, it looks like he doesn't have a backyard so where is he to plant a vegetable garden. I think if the City wants it down maybe they should feed the couple !

steve coryell
12/5/2012 6:16:05 PM

if the city wants a fence have them pay for it!

desiree hayes
12/5/2012 4:52:27 PM

The neighbors should be nice to them, someday they might need them to share...

jim chatman
12/5/2012 3:45:26 PM

It's hard to know what's on Orlando city officials' minds, but I would deduce from the article that 2 things are happening. 1) Neighbors have complained because the garden doesn't appear ""finished" and "inviting"", in their opinions, or what they probably mean is that if someone plants a garden, it must be because they don't fit in with the neighborhood income and social brackets. Ergo, a garden = lower-income or working-class, and that surely can't be tolerated. 2) City officials, who likely also live in ""finished" and "inviting"" neighborhoods and thus see a means of keeping undesirables out of their own areas, so with the cognitive dissonance ubiquitous in the Sunshine State (fair disclosure - I'm a native Floridian although no longer a resident), they issue a statement declaring their support for home gardens while secretly tamping them down through bureaucratic harassment. If we all had home gardens, we could reduce our carbon footprints by eliminating some of the transportation fuels necessary, and would have a tastier alternative to the mass-market, tasteless vegetables found at the grocery. (BTW, Kale is a perfect name for a gardener, I think!)

12/5/2012 4:15:29 AM

Excellent follow-up, Kale - thanks for staying up on this story.

bill chaney
12/2/2012 2:26:00 PM

If every front yard in America looked like that, we'd all be better off. All these patches of grass everywhere are literally a waste of space, nothing more. There are people starving to death and we have thousands of acres of grass going down the highway. People just can't figure out what's important. The govt needs to encourage gardens, and self sufficiency, to strengthen this nation of walking health hazards.

paula gillis
12/2/2012 5:39:24 AM

erm. are we sure that's a "25-square-foot" garden? that would be a plot 5 feet by 5 feet. what is in the photo looks a lot more like a "25-by-25-foot" garden, or 625 square feet.